“The Jazz Age is over,” declared novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1931, nine years after he coined the phrase. The era generally encompassed the years between November 1918, when World War I ended, and the stock market crash in October 1929.1 This period of economic prosperity and cultural transformation marked the birth of modern America. Lifestyles were impacted by automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, radio, and household electricity. For the first time, more than half of the people lived in towns and cities and women could vote. Although these trends had been evolving for decades, they accelerated in the 1920s, sparking a powerful backlash. The conservative counterassault manifested itself in the anti-radical hysteria of the Red Scare, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the ratification of National Prohibition, the passage of stricter immigration quotas, and the rise of Fundamentalism. Almost fifty menus reveal parts of this vast, complicated story. Some recall forgotten events; others provide unwitting evidence of societal issues that are with us to this day.
Aftermath of The Great War
When a full-scale civil war erupted in Russia in the summer of 1918, the United States sent a military expedition to assist the anti-Bolshevik forces. American troops also engaged in direct combat with the Red Army. This menu comes from the far-eastern port of Vladivostok on Christmas of that year. By April 1920, the U.S. Army had completely withdrawn from Siberia.
The Armistice called for an army of occupation to remain in Germany for a period after the war. The menu below comes from Thanksgiving 1921. Fourteen months later, all of the American troops had returned home.
Military operations continued in other parts of the world much the same as before. This menu comes from the Marine Barracks in San Fernando de Monte Cristi during the first U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic, one of many such interventions in Latin America known as the “Banana Wars.”
American commerce in China was protected from warlords and bandits by ships like the U.S.S. Monocacy, a shallow draft gunboat specifically built for service on the Yangtze River. On Christmas 1923, it was moored at Chongqing.
Although World War I had been an unprecedented catastrophe, the major military powers immediately embarked on a round of rearmament. The menu below shows the French Powder Mission being entertained in 1919 at the Café des Beaux-Arts in New York by the senior management of E. I. du Pont de Nemours, the American gunpowder company founded in 1802.
When the U.S. courts dissolved the Powder Trust in 1912, the decision did not affect DuPont’s monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder for the U.S. military. During the war, DuPont produced high-powered explosives for artillery shells, supplying up to 40% of such munitions used by the Allies. In 1920, the French Naval Artillery Mission visited the company headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware where a dinner was held in their honor at the Hotel du Pont. Both menus were made by the high-society stationer Bailey, Banks & Biddle in Philadelphia.
“Return to Normalcy”
In the 1920s, the country was led by three Republican presidents—Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. None have fared well at the hands of historians. Ranked as one of the worst of all time, Harding called for a “return to normalcy” during the campaign, a promise eerily reminiscent of the recent, less-modest proposal to “make America great again.” During his two-and-half years in office, he slashed federal spending, sharply cut income taxes, and failed to regulate Wall Street. On August 2, 1923, while on a speaking tour of the West, Harding died unexpectedly in San Francisco. As shown below, he visited Yellowstone Park five weeks before his death. Annual vacations were then becoming a standard benefit for white collar workers, making it possible for more middle-class families to visit the national parks.
Vice President Calvin Coolidge received word of Harding’s death while in Vermont visiting his family home, which had neither electricity nor a telephone. After his father, a justice of the peace, administered the oath of office in the parlor by the light of a kerosene lamp, Coolidge went back to bed. H. L. Mencken, a widely-read journalist during the Jazz Age, observed that Coolidge’s ideal day was one in which nothing happened.2
The Immigration Restriction Act of 1921 limited the number of people admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country who were living in the United States in 1910. Interestingly, both menus from the immigrant station on Ellis Island that have been discovered to date come from the year 1923, when much fewer people were being processed. The one below features a dessert called “Liberty Pudding.” In 1924, the Johnson–Reed Act reduced the annual quota from 3% to 2% and changed the comparison year to 1890. Congress, upon reflection, seemingly preferred the ethnic mix of an earlier time.
The American Protective League was disbanded in 1919, as marked by this banquet at the Astor Hotel in New York. In fact, the U.S. Attorney General said that its continued operation in any community constituted “a grave menace.” During the war, this “national organization of private citizens worked with Federal law enforcement to identify suspected German sympathizers and to counteract radicals, anarchists, anti-war activists, and left-wing labor and political organizations...At its zenith, the APL claimed 250,000 members in 600 cities.” APL veterans went on to join similar organizations like the Patriotic American League in Chicago, the Loyalty League in Cleveland, and the Home Guard in Cincinnati. Members from the Southern branches of the APL were recruited by the Ku Klux Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan was re-established in 1915 to promote white supremacy and an ideology of “Americanism,” targeting African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Mexicans, and “new immigrants.” Membership reportedly peaked between 4 and 5 million in the mid-1920s, when the population of the country was about 115 million.
Not surprisingly, racist images began to occasionally appear on menus, such as this one from the annual dinner of the New York State Hotel Association in 1920.3
An agricultural equipment producer named Advance-Rumely sponsored this banquet in 1924 in Des Moines. Lyrics are provided for a ditty about its line of farm tractors and for the first and eleventh stanzas of the patriotic song “America.”
Membership in the KKK declined significantly by 1929 when this menu appeared at the North East Shrine Club in Philadelphia.
The Eighteenth Amendment called for a nationwide ban on alcoholic beverages. At first it seemed like a joke. This banquet was held at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on January 8, 1920, nine days before the country went dry.
Some hotels turned their bars into soda fountains, as shown by this 1922 menu from the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York.
The Prohibition laws were widely circumvented. Following the usual pattern, the fare served at this dance at the Willows, a club on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania, includes simple dishes like chicken a la king, a few sandwiches, and set-ups that could be spiked from a hip flask.
A card was inserted to inform patrons what they already knew; drinking alcoholic beverages was against the law.
In August 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. On November 2 of that year, more than 8 million women went to the polls for the first time. This dinner was held by the Women’s Democratic Club in the 14th Assembly District of New York.
Despite their growing political power, women still had limited career opportunities. The New York Exchange for Woman’s Work was founded in 1878 as a place where Civil War widows could sell hand-knitted scarves and mittens. The Exchange later expanded to handle other products and in 1919, opened a tea room.
Women began to open tea rooms in their homes or in free-standing buildings. What is more, proprietresses used the opportunity to display items for sale, such as jewelry, antiques, and artifacts. “During the 1920s, at the height of the tea room craze, these little businesses were virtually synonymous with female self-expression,” observed historian Jan Whitaker.4 Candy chains like Huyler’s operated upscale tea rooms in the large cities.
Fashion entered the modern era. Women began to wear more comfortable clothes like short skirts or trousers, conforming to the ideals of a flatter chest and more boyish figure. This menu marks a gathering in 1927 of the “plant girls” who worked at the Southern California Telephone Company.
Schrafft’s in New York pioneered a genteel style that appealed to middle-class women. This menu shows there were thirteen locations in early 1920, a number that would more than triple by the late 30s. The moderately-priced fare includes salads, a goodly number of desserts, and pedestrian vegetables like wax beans, stewed tomatoes, and asparagus tips on toast.
The number of cars on the road grew from 8 million to 26 million during the decade. This chicken dinner in Crestline, Ohio marked the arrival of the Lincoln Highway in 1921. First completed in 1913, this transcontinental highway underwent a number of route changes, such as the one being celebrated here by the local Chamber of Commerce.
The Hertz Drive-Ur Self Company was founded in 1923. Perhaps the name of the new company inspired Frank Lemon to coin the motto “Eat ‘N’ Ure Car” to promote his café near Culver City, California. New kinds of low-priced restaurants appeared as people of all classes began to eat out more often. Luncheonettes, cafeterias, and drive-ins advertised simple, home-style meals served in clean surroundings.
As it happened, restaurateur Frank Lemon was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and one of 36 men arrested in 1922 for a masked, night-time raid on a suspected bootlegger and his family. The raid led to the shooting death of one of the culprits. After a jury found them not guilty, the defendants rushed to shake the hand of the jurors, some of whom said they considered it a “patriotic verdict.”
Road construction gained momentum. This dinner in 1928 was held at the Caterpillar Tractor plant in San Leandro, California. The cover illustration shows a seemingly distressed Native American woman holding a child at a road construction site. While it was not unprecedented to juxtaposition Native Americans in industrial settings representing progress, this scene looks distinctly odd.
Novelty architecture attracted drive-by customers to roadside businesses. The unusual buildings often took the form of products sold inside. One such place was The Big Red Apple, a 30-foot-high structure that opened next to an orchard in Wathena, Kansas. Billed as the “largest apple ever grown,” this eatery featured every convenience for the traveling public—camping grounds, gasoline service, restrooms, refreshments, courteous attendants, and a roof garden with a dance floor. Some said it put Wathena on the map.
Paris offered an escape for writers, artists, and composers experiencing a crisis of values after the war. American expatriates were attracted by the favorable exchange rate (about 25 French francs to the dollar in 1925), the fine cuisine, and the lack of puritanical restrictions like Prohibition. “It’s not so much what France gives you,” wrote Gertrude Stein in her flat on the Rue de Fleurus, “It’s what it doesn’t take away.” One of the popular gathering places was the Café de la Rotonde, a brasserie in the Montparnasse Quarter.
Le Dôme was situated on the other side of the boulevard. In 1928, this small, shabby café was renovated, adding a sidewalk terrace and the “American Bar.” For Hemingway, the Montparnasse party was over when the Dôme began serving caviar.
This business card from Emil’s expresses the charm of its time and place.
Both expatriates and tourists took pleasure in the joys of French cuisine which had largely disappeared in the United States after Prohibition went into effect. Androuët, a cheese shop on the rue d'Amsterdam, advertised its selection for the 1928-1929 season in this small brochure, while back in America, Kraft acquired the Velveeta Cheese Company, advertising its new product as a nutritious health food.
The artistic fertility of Paris attracted people from many countries. Thé Russe was a fashionable spot to meet for afternoon tea.
Motion pictures made celebrity culture a national pastime. Previously, the most famous people in the country worked in traditional fields like politics and business. The paradigm shifted in the 1920s when over half of the celebrities came from the world of sports and entertainment. In 1922, Rueben’s in New York was already naming some of its sandwiches after performers, such as the flamboyant actress Peggy Joyce, the Broadway musical star Marilyn Miller, and the singer Al Jolson, five years before he appeared in the “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature film presented as a talkie.
Georges Auguste Escoffier visited New York in 1926. The renowned French chef was feted by former pupils and disciples at the Ambassador Hotel on October 25, three days before his eightieth birthday.
Harry Houdini died on October 26, 1926 at the age of 52. The famous illusionist and stunt performer was known for his sensational escapes from handcuffs, chains, and straitjackets, either suspended from a building or submerged under water. As president of the Society of American Magicians, Houdini presided at its annual dinner in June of that year, a few months before his death.
After Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop to Paris in May 1927, he toured the country in his famous single-engine monoplane, attending sixty-nine dinners in his honor. The menu below comes from the banquet at the Providence Biltmore Hotel in Rhode Island.
In September 1927, a boxing rematch between world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey in Chicago ended in controversy. After knocking down Tunney, Dempsey failed to go to and remain in a neutral corner, causing the count to be delayed. The bout became known as the “Long Count Fight.” On the day of the event, this chicken a la King dinner at the Congress Hotel cost $10, representing about $140 today.
Fads & Fashions
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 ignited a fascination in ancient Egypt. “Tut-mania” was a mass-culture, mass-market phenomenon, influencing the fields of art, fashion, film, and furniture design. This menu comes from the Club Karnak in Boston.
As the popularity of comic strips skyrocketed, newspapers began to put them on one page. The two handmade menus below come from a private dinner party in Oakland, California in 1922. The cartoons, bearing the likenesses of the popular characters Maggie and Jiggs, were drawn by different hands.
When Protestant clergy began to reconcile historical Christianity with the findings of modern science, it triggered a strong reaction known as Fundamentalism. An influential evangelist of this movement was a former professional baseball player named Billy Sunday who held revivals across the country. The cover of this 1925 menu from a father-and-son banquet of the Billy Sunday Club at the First Presbyterian Church in East Syracuse, New York evokes the feeling of the old-time religion.
The so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 found a high school teacher guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. Still, the forces of urban secularism could not be reversed. The Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles became synonymous with the glamour of Hollywood, now the world’s film capital.
In March 1925, the second inauguration of Calvin Coolidge became the first to be broadcast nationally on radio. “Silent Cal” restored public confidence after the scandals of his predecessor’s administration, but continued the laissez-faire policies that may have led to the Great Depression.
A college student named Vada Watson was proclaimed the Wheat Queen of Kansas in 1925. The state’s first wheat girl hailed from Turon, a town of only 600 people. During her national tour, Vada presented a bag of wheat to President Coolidge on the steps of the White House.
The cultural and artistic explosion in Harlem was reflected in its cabarets such as the famous Cotton Club which catered exclusively to white audiences. The food served in these nightclubs was of no importance. Typically, half of the menu was devoted to Chinese-American staples like chop suey, chow mein and egg foo young.
Beauty contests and diets were the rage. “Reducing has become a national pastime, a craze, a national fanaticism, a frenzy,” reported a journalist in 1925. There was also a growing interest in nutrition. Food companies advertised their products as being full of vitamins, making health claims that were difficult to dispute—vitamins were a relatively recent discovery. This 1926 menu from Child’s in New York lists the vitamins and proteins by each dish.
Although few civilians flew on dirigibles, the American military pursued the possibilities of the new technology. This menu from Christmas 1925 comes from the U.S.S. Shenandoah, the Navy’s first rigid airship which was torn apart in a thunderstorm the following year. Since military aircraft was mostly used for reconnaissance, the air squadrons often produced their holiday menus on photographic paper.
Palais des Beaux Arts was perhaps the most expensive restaurant in New York in 1927, although its cuisine had been on the decline since 1919 when DuPont executives lavishly entertained French military officials in its elegant dining room overlooking Bryant Park.
The Roaring 20s were going strong in 1928, as indicated by this advertising card and menu for the New Years Eve party at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago.
Halloween entered the mainstream of society. However, when small pranks devolved into vandalism and violence, civic leaders began to channel youthful energy into other activities. The holiday was equally celebrated by adults, as reflected by this dinner in Boston in 1928.
The popularity of college football rose dramatically in the 1920s when school enrollments doubled. By the end of the decade, 30 million spectators were attending games each season. This dinner was held after the Harvard-Dartmouth game on October 26, 1929, two days after the stock market completely collapsed on “Black Thursday.” In the 1930s, the American soup called “cream of new peas with green turtle” would be renamed “boula-boula” after a Yale football cheer.
The Party Ends
In late December 1928, the battleship U.S.S. Utah transported Herbert Hoover back from Central and South America.5 During his tour, the President-elect promised that the United States would henceforth act as a “good neighbor,” reducing political and military interference in Latin America.
Six months after Hoover’s inauguration in March 1929, stock prices began to drift downward, reversing the upward trend of the previous nine years. In late October, a series of severe market crashes ushered in the Great Depression. Hoover, a much-heralded businessman before taking office, performed poorly during the crisis. Perhaps the worst decision of his administration was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff which triggered retaliatory measures by U.S. trading partners. American exports and imports went down by more than half, exacerbating the Great Depression. It would be twenty years before a Republican was back in the White House.
1. Kathleen Drowne, Patrick Huber, The 1920s: American Popular Culture through History, Greenwood Press, 2004.
2. H. L. Menken also said: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Baltimore Evening Sun, 26 July 1920.
3. Although racist images appeared much earlier on other types of America ephemera, it did not generally show up on menus until the 1920s.
4. Jan Whitaker, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, 2002.
5. U.S.S. Utah was sunk on 7 December 1941 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Her rusting hulk is now classified as a war grave.